Issue No. 121
Sara, the narrator of Dina Nayeri’s “A Faded Sense,” has only four out of five senses in tact. Her sense of touch—the most intimate sense, the only one that requires being close, within arms length—has been drastically diminished by a childhood accident that badly scarred her palms. Though the injury itself was brutal, the cause wasn’t particularly violent—the equivalent of tripping—or, as Nayeri puts it, “a lifetime of mild punishment for a single bad instinct.”
One morning we find Sara “grinding [her] fingers into a bed of uncooked rice,” hunting, she says, “for deeper sensation.” I’m reminded of something I once read about children forced to kneel on uncooked rice as an abusive punishment, and the parallel offers insight into Sara’s mind. What is torture for others is an exercise for her—a matter of regular practice. She turns over painful thoughts like sharp pebbles in her fist, daring them to make her feel more than “a faded sense.”
And yet, despite Sara’s faculties not being entirely in tact, Nayeri’s are operating at full capacity. Some of the greatest pleasures of reading “A Faded Sense” are the author’s sharp and touching characterizations: a loving email from Sara’s mother that she deletes immediately after reading—the kind of tender advice only a daughter could take for granted, “finding love, is not finished.” Or, the reverse of that, the cruel remarks her brother makes, the kind of truthfulness only a sibling could get away with: “It’s like your arrogance and actual uselessness are wandering around in all that dark. When they finally bump into each other, you’ll probably commit suicide.” And between the two of them, there’s Sara addressing herself: “I think about getting my shit together, what that would look like.”
Unlike Sara, who describes her injury as being “like trying to appreciate silk through dish gloves, or the watery trickling music of a harp through a thick door,” the reader experiences this story with stunning immediacy, with a heightened sense of what it’s like to be this person, this Sara, with her heavy heart and her damaged hands.
Editor-in-Chief, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
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by Dina Nayeri
Recommended by Electric Literature
Isaac sips scotch with slow winces and tells me you can use stomach fat to fill the hole left from excising a neck tumor. “That’s the simple part. I’d let a first year resident do it.” We sit at a table close to the door and every few minutes a chilly wind follows a customer into the bar. A dried-out lime wedge flung partway between us leaks a drop of gin onto the wood.
How much can a first year resident know? I used to tell my brother Kian that if you gave me five years with no distractions, I could do anything: surgery, rocket science, ice dancing. He sneered, a reaction I had counted on when I said it. “What happened to you?” he once asked me, all disdain and misplaced pity. He was a little drunk. “It’s like your arrogance and actual uselessness are wandering around in all that dark. When they finally bump into each other, you’ll probably commit suicide.”
He said that before Arash—of course. I’m supposed to do everyone the courtesy of forgetting. I only remember the one comment, and another, more recently, at Norooz dinner. Kian, after a few glasses: “You know why Sara dates so much? ‘Cause when other people are alone, they get to be with a sane person.”
Since last summer, I go on dates for the stories, and to calm my panicky friends, but really just for the stories. I tell the men I’m divorced. The truth is that Arash died in a motorcycle accident on the NJ Turnpike the day after he told me he wanted to leave. He was rushing to a meeting with an author at Princeton when a rig in front of him had a blowout. He swerved to avoid the chunks of tire and hit something that sent him into the wheel of the truck. A witness said he flipped his bike four times. So, in a way, the awful conversation of the previous morning didn’t happen. He never stroked my chin with one hand, never massaged my palm and dropped his voice and said, “Sara joon, it’s perfectly possible for me to love you and to feel that our marriage isn’t working. Those two sentiments are possible for me.”
But, wherever Arash has gone, we both know that he did say those words, and so calling myself divorced seems more honest. I have a hundred ways of finding these men—through friends, online, in magazine articles about loss or illness or war. I ask them out, they always say yes, and we have a good time together. I found Isaac quoted in a piece on throat surgery.